Over the last couple of months I discovered my hijab story. Mind you, this story only developed seven years after having taken up the hijab and 10 months after having taken it off. But I guess it’s the experiences that make the story and the subsequent lessons.

Nothing about my years in hijab were traumatic that caused me to dismiss my faith and throw away my beautiful pieces of cloth in a rage-full dismissal of my faith.  I actually still wrap my old headscarf around my neck or arms, reveling in their comfort on a daily basis. What changed was the issue of representation. I have always had, and continue to have, a strong love for the rationality of my religion, the peace of my faith, and the comfort of making my most stable identity, Islam, visible through the scarf. I decided to take on wearing the hijab as I was graduating from middle school to a Catholic, all-girls high school.

At the time, as an awkward-looking, flat, wild-haired brown girl, I didn’t understand the idea of hijab as protection. Rather, it was a statement. A way to represent my faith, my politics, my identity, and my self. When wearing the scarf, I made a point of smiling more frequently, engaging with strangers, being incessantly polite, answering questions politely, and going out of my way to make friends.

I study issues of representation in international development, particularly representation of women, I firmly believe in representing myself in the best way possible, keeping in mind the way people perceive and response to the way I carry myself. During the first two to three years of college, I developed a variety of habits that are un-Islamic. These habits, at least not all of them, were not necessarily ones that I could conceal in order to maintain the image of an observant Muslim.

The most problematic and persistent development was, and continues to be, the smoking. I smoked and continued to wear the hijab for two years. Depending on where I was and whom I was with, I would decide whether to smoke publicly or not.

A brown woman in hijab, smoking against the backdrop of white-male dominated academic background is a striking and meaning-packed image, as I discovered and manipulated. Here is an exercise: conjure that image in your own mind and derive your own meanings and judgments. Among other things, it defies the norms and traditions of the culture that my skin color speaks to. But it also defies the belief system my hijab spoke to.

Case in point: I was smoking, one night, in the parking lot of a rather prestigious restaurant when an elderly, upper class, white man approached me. He, very pleasantly and politely said, “You are Muslim, right? Smoking is against your religion and its going to ruin your beauty.”

Way to represent, Sumer.

A year later, I was heading to Amman, Jordan for a semester. I wore the hijab for a week into being there. And then I took it off. I no longer felt as though I needed to represent my faith and fight the stereotypes against Muslims, because I was in an environment where most people shared my faith. I further justified my decision by turning to the idea of hijab as a protection. I was being sexually harassed and followed in the hijab, and that persisted after I took it off. The biggest challenge was deciding what to do when I returned State-side. I had long Skype calls with my mother and closest-friend. My decision came down to the issue of representation. I still smoked, far more than before, and had no intention of quitting upon my return. That, combined with my other less-noble tendencies made me feel like a hypocrite in the scarf. In my travels, I watched Muslim women in hijab engaging in actions that were, also, less-noble. I did not want to be that person. I am not making judgment calls against such people; this was just a standard I had set for myself and was not keen on breaking it. So I landed in States, with no scarf on.

I returned to campus and my job at a coffee shop, with my thick curls falling down my back. It took all of four months for me to discover the power and beauty of hijab. All of a sudden, the male regulars, who I had been serving since before I left, were openly flirting with me. People held doors open, said “hi” randomly, and I got asked out more times in those four months than I had in my two and a half years of university.

Before, during the handful of times non-Muslim guys asked me out, I considered them to be my friends. They knew me, my character, my mind, my opinions, my behavior. Now, guys who misread my name off of my nametag were asking me to dinner. The newly developed attention was demeaning and offensive. And I continue to feel the same way about it, being in Indonesia with a different pool of men.

Before I left for Indonesia, I was taking my break outside the coffee shop, having a smoke. An elderly, upper class white women approached me.

She, very pleasantly and politely, said, “I sometimes wish I still smoked.”

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  • Sumer Shaikh is a recent graduate with a degree in International Development and Social. She has always had a passion for traveling through her family, and journaling the people, stories, and places that she encountered. She began her solo traveling half way through university, spending a semester in Amman, Jordan and the following summer in Indonesia. She plans to embark on many more plane-bound adventures, while continuing to pursue her academic interests in gender and environmental studies. She leads her life by asking herself two imperatives questions: (1) Will it give you a good story? (2) Will you live to tell it?